Collective Improvisation: The Power of Interplay

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Collective Improvisation Relies on Interplay

Collective improvisation relies on interactions between musicians. While these interactions may be subtle or even invisible to the listener, they have a significant impact on the music that is created.

Research into serendipity has highlighted processual serendipity before (Copeland 2017; Makri and Blandford 2012). However, an improvisation perspective offers a way to understand how improvised luck can be governed in responsible innovation processes.


The practice of collective improvisation has a long history in jazz, with its various eras and styles. For instance, in the swing era and even the bebop era, musicians often improvised complex solos, but also used their music to communicate with each other and create musical narratives that lasted hours.

In other styles, such as Dixieland, it was common for musicians to improvise in tandem with one another. While this was not a form of total freedom, it was certainly an element that shaped musical identity.

The living lab methodology Trasformatorio offers an opportunity to examine these connections across genres and cultures. In doing so, it enables us to see the unforeseen not as a random outcome but as an embodied and nested experience in the context of a sustainable and generative innovation trajectory. It further provides a tool for analysing the way in which participants play with structures to generate serendipitous insights. This, in turn, will enable the responsible governance of improvisation processes and the recognition that the unforeseen can be intentionally generated.


Whether or not musical improvisation is consciously orchestrated, it exerts influence on how music is played. For example, the improvising pianist might inspire a soloist to shape his lines or the bassist might follow a drum pattern. This interplay of influencing factors is one reason why jazz musicians are able to achieve such a high degree of collective improvisation.

In fact, the improvisational nature of jazz is so pronounced that it was given its name as a form that incorporates improvisation in a distinctive way. This is a key point: The emergence of improvisational practices engenders a certain kind of serendipity that can be facilitated and recognised in living lab social innovation processes.

This shift from thinking of serendipity as an occurrence to seeing it as the outcome of a specific practice opens up new possibilities for how we can develop and govern responsible innovation. To this end, we explore the potential of introducing an improvisational framework to delve into the unforeseen in innovation processes and to explore how it might relate to a generative practice like the paired drumming of kendang arja or the melody-making techniques of gamelan gong kebyar.


As improvisation is a dynamic activity, it requires a different set of skills than playing a composed piece. For instance, the musicians may not always be able to predict what other members will do or how they will change their ideas. This creates new possibilities of interplay.

Various aspects of music can be collectively improvised, including motifs, rhythmic feels, textures, and tempi. In most cases, these musical aspects are integrated into one broad flow of music.

In order to achieve this, the musicians must be able to synchronize their actions and orient themselves toward the larger context of the performance. They must also be able to respond quickly to the proposals of other musicians. For example, the improvisation on “Romain,” from Undercurrent, 1962, by Bill Evans and Jim Hall features a lot of mutual elaboration. The trio interacts through call-and-response, collaborative motivic development, and the creation of varying textures. The instrumentalists often overlap in function, such as creating structure and melodic ideas, and in role, whether they play their instrument’s traditional melody or support the soloist.


After an extensive period of deliberate practice, expert musicians have automated a lot of the cognitive and behavioural actions demanded by musical performance. This leaves enough ‘spare’ cognitive capacity to allow higher-order processing – such as the generation and on-line evaluation of improvised musical ideas.

It is in this sense that improvisation provides an alternative to thinking about serendipity as a recognised outcome of serendipitous insights, and instead frames it as a process. It enables us to consider the ways in which the ‘lucky’ events that occur during social innovation processes can be facilitated and governed, rather than left as an un-managed side-effect of ungovernable serendipity.

As an example, we can look at how Armstrong and Hines interacted in their 1928 duet “Weather Bird.” The fact that the recording is made without a rhythm section allows us to clearly track the interaction between the two musicians – who engage in collective improvisation through mutual motivic development, call-and-response and the creation of a shared tempo.

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